Probably not what Dr. Martin Luther King meant when he spoke of being "free at last."
Last week, a judge in St. Louis released seven middle school students after the key witness failed to show up for a hearing. The juveniles were accused of beating a local man almost to death. What had the poor man done to deserve such a thrashing? Not a thing. He was simply walking home from the grocery store. The attack, it turned out, was part of a popular craze our local youth call the knockout game, though it is anything but a game. One elderly man has already died from a similar assault.
After the dismissal, the teens celebrated outside the courtroom, high-fiving one another.
Police had arrested the young thugs after they bragged about the beatings on a Facebook page. Evidently, the teens believed society could do nothing to them, even if they crowed publicly about their exploits. It turns out they were right.
One of the teens agreed to testify. However, the witness, a 13-year old girl, soon had second thoughts, no doubt after her life was threatened. The news seemed to re-enforce the notion (already prevalent among county residents) that St. Louis city is little more than a petri dish from hell, a holding pen for the region's most violent, a real-life "Escape from New York," the sci-fi movie in which the city has been turned into a giant maximum security prison without guards. (Ironically, director John Carpenter's film was shot, not in New York, but in St. Louis.)
ADOLESCENTS, OF COURSE, are notorious for their aggressive behavior, their lack of empathy, and their inability to visualize long-term consequences. Such has always been the case. This is why parental discipline is so essential. The fact that the delinquents were allowed to celebrate in the courthouse after successfully intimidating a witness (normally a class C felony), and getting away with assault and battery, and that no one stepped in to quell their gaiety, clearly illustrates that they are without responsible adults in their lives.
Most readers, I suspect, are unable to imagine living in a world in which actions do not have consequences. Had I, in my youth, committed such an act of barbarism -- which in itself was unlikely, least of all for fear of my father's reaction -- my dad would have made me apologize to the victim, then dragged me home by the ear where I would have been ordered to "pick my switch." Had I even contemplated threatening a witness, I would have been packed off to military school immediately.
Back then, of course, adults were more accustomed to trust the so-called authorities. If a student received poor grades at school, parents seldom blamed the teachers. If a child was picked up by the police for shoplifting, his or her parents were genuinely ashamed of themselves and their child, they didn't take their anger out on the authorities. (This blind trust in authority is how the various clergy abuse scandals were able to go on for so long.)
Today society has gone to the other extreme. It is the authorities who are perceived to be untrustworthy. In the suburbs, parents are likely to blame teachers for their little darlings' poor academic performance. In the inner city, the parent is likely to accuse police of racial profiling. Said the mother of one of the teenage suspects: "They took my daughter out of school in handcuffs. They had my kid locked up.… She missed Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthday and New Year. I had to watch my baby every time I went down there cry… you can't make an example out of an innocent kid."
MISSOURIANS, MEANWHILE, have responded to these incidents by arming themselves. The state legislature passed a conceal-and-carry amendment back in 2003. Now when out-of-towners visit the city for a boat show or a sporting event, they often arrive with a loaded weapon stashed under the front seat. How is that working? It has proved a boon for the criminal element, who swarm down on parking lots during sporting events, smashing vehicle windows, and making off with a small arsenal. St. Louis' mayor has responded with a larger police presence during major concerts and sporting events. The next step, one assumes, is a declaration of martial law.
The 52-year-old victim told a local newspaper that a few days after the suspects' release, he encountered two of the teens (he recognized them from court) outside the same supermarket. One walked up to him and acted as though he were going to punch him in the face. Then they strode off laughing.
Their mothers would have been proud.
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